Serving executives in higher education throughout the United States. Admitted New York and Connecticut bars.

(646) 861-2410 (primary) (203) 984-6265

What College Presidents Must Do Before the Axe Falls: Part 1

Why presidents and other seasoned executives can benefit from seasoned counsel
The higher education press has been filled recently with stories about abrupt firings of presidents and other senior executives at universities and colleges across the nation. What was once an infrequent occurrence now seems a weekly, almost daily event.

Speculating on the reasons for this trend—financial pressures, decreasing enrollment, board dissension or the injection of modern human resources practice (the “hire slow, fire fast” mentality)—is probably a futile exercise.

The president facing termination, or who actually has been fired, can better spend his or her efforts preparing to cushion the blow, both for themselves and their families.

What can senior academic executives do to protect themselves in an axe-happy environment? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

1. Get professional advice.
College presidents and other senior executives often have a sixth sense that they may be terminated in the near future. They are usually correct. When that thought first crosses the president’s mind, it is time to retain a knowledgeable executive employment attorney—but not just any executive compensation lawyer.

Higher education “C-Suite” employment operates in a unique and nuanced environment. Presidents and deans are far better served by someone who has substantial experience in negotiating top-level academic contracts, both “on the way in” (when the executive is being hired) as well as “on the way out” in the event of a president’s untimely termination.

Why call before termination actually occurs? Every experienced lawyer knows that the earlier legal assistance is sought, the more effective it is. Indeed, legal action taken before the actual termination can pave the way for a “soft landing.”

2. Don’t discuss your situation with anyone except your lawyer.
The less the administrator shares with anyone—other than his or her lawyer, spouse or domestic partner—the better. The academic community is an endless rumor mill, which is never helpful to an executive whose head is on the block.

And, if the goal is to achieve a negotiated resolution, the maintenance of strict confidentiality on both sides is almost certain to be a condition of such an agreement.

The first thing an executive employment lawyer will tell an academic client in the midst of a termination is—not to put too fine a point on it—“Please shut up.”

The executive can ask his or her attorney about specific exceptions to this rule—for example, “Can I speak in confidence to a sympathetic president or dean of another higher ed institution who has been through the experience of being terminated?” But ordinarily, the answer will be “No, just keep quiet.”

3. Don’t fall prey to sentimental illusions.
When the board of trustees has decided to terminate a president, past relations with individual trustees mean little or nothing. Trustees of nonprofit organizations in higher ed (and elsewhere) usually are not compensated for their service other than by community prestige or their personal pleasure in being connected to an institution they care about.

No matter how friendly they have been to a president when in office, it is unlikely they will speak up against the majority. Their efforts, even if they are willing to make them, are rarely useful and might actually backfire, hurting the president’s position.

It would be far better to retain their goodwill so the president’s attorney can, for example, obtain more severance or a better letter of recommendation.

Points #4 and 5 will appear in Part 2 of this article, coming soon!

About the Author

Team member image

George Birnbaum

Since 1980, sophisticated business people have relied on George to apply the meticulous preparation, attention to detail, and devotion to his clients he learned from fabled trial lawyer Louis Nizer. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, George has over 35 years of distinguished deal-making, litigation, mediation and arbitration experience which he has used to negotiate high-stakes agreements for senior executives and select business clients throughout the United States.